Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: February 5th, 2016
Platform: PC [Reviewed], Mac, Linux
XCOM: Enemy Unknown was one of my favorite games of 2012. Reviving such a cult series in such a beautiful way was not just a feat for Firaxis, but a marvel. Four years (and another Civilization game) later , Firaxis has jumped back into the XCOM project to release a highly anticipated sequel that improves on nearly every aspect of Enemy Unknown to deliver the ideal sequel to a nearly flawless game. XCOM 2 builds on a solid foundation to provide an experience unmatched by nearly any title on PC and takes turn-based strategy games to a whole new level.
XCOM 2 starts by assuming that you lost the first game. Being so difficult, many players were taken over by the aliens in Enemy Unknown and Firaxis played on this difficulty by putting you in the position of loss. The game opens in 2035 with the Advent (alien-human hybrids) controlling the Earth. The XCOM project has little staffing and resources left, but is hoping to make contact with small resistance camps across the world in order to take down the Advent forces. The approach that Firaxis took in the story is not only creative, but serves to drive the story to the point where you feel like you’re actually fighting for something. Instead of just throwing you in a random situation, you are opposed on every front and taking on an enemy that is not only much larger, but much more capable than you. Firaxis have managed to make this uphill battle a motivating factor instead of an unrelenting loss. Every step forward is match with a step by the Advent, but you always feel like you still have a chance, if you play your cards correctly, to take down a force much larger than yourself.
While the story may not be completely unrelenting, the gameplay surely is. Even on the the ‘Rookie’ difficulty (the easiest of four difficulty levels), it feels like the Advent are throwing everything they have at you. This is a little bit of a blessing and a curse for XCOM 2. While the challenge certainly makes for fun, interesting, and engaging gameplay, the early onslaught of chaos can feel completely unmanageable, sometimes resulting in just having to step away from the game for a few moments. Enemy types are thrown at you at rapid pace before you can learn how to face them. On one hand, this rapid progression serves to give tension within missions that would otherwise be repetitive, but at certain points in the game, you can’t help but feel that a mission was unfair. Different status effects trigger quickly (more on those later), breaking concealment sometimes leaves you questioning why it happened, and shots that should surely land miss a little too often. Rebalancing will probably take place in a short update (if Enemy Unknown is any indication of how quickly this will happen than it should be fairly shortly), and hopefully will the push the game further than it already is.
Outside of this, the gameplay is absolutely beautiful. The tactical approach has been completely revamped to provide more control on the battlefield. You can loot enemies, hack enemy command posts, and take poisoned or damaged teammates to the extraction point to ensure they are healed back at Command HQ. One of my favorite additions is the concealment. When going to infiltrate an unsuspecting base, your team will be put under concealment where the Advent are totally unaware of your presence. This allows you to set up tactical maneuvers all under the nose of your enemy and plan an assault after gaining a bearing on the grounds on which you’ll be fighting.
To further these tactical missions, Firaxis has created a system where no mission will be predictable. The maps dynamically change with destructible environments, and the objectives of each encounter play out in a random why, all serving to a unique story that you control. To build some tension in the background, XCOM 2 now features ‘Dark Events’ that show up randomly. If these events come to fruition, it means devastating blows to future missions and expansions of the XCOM project. Thankfully, you can combat the Dark Events with certain missions if you choose to take on the challenge, and I would highly advise that you do.
Firaxis has also paid mind to the gameplay that is outside of the tactical missions. Science, engineering, and training facilities are all back and feel more streamlined than ever. While still giving you plenty of options, XCOM 2 makes the payoff for each advancement very clear, allowing you to take full control and plan your upgrades strategically to fit a dynamic battle.
Enemy Unknown featured a pretty hefty list of customization options for each of your soldiers. Again, XCOM 2 builds on this platform and provides even more customization options in game. Every aspect of every soldier can be tweaked to your taste, and serves to make the loss of soldiers that much more difficult to get over. I had a fully tricked out squad of soldiers that had flawless completely six missions together. On their seventh outing, I lost three of them (curse you, Vipers) and had to shut off the game for the night because I was so bummed out. Any game that can make me care that much about soldiers that I can purchase for a handful of supplies should definitely be commended.
Most strategy titles aren’t known for having flawless graphics. With so much happening on screen, it’s hard to make textures high quality without severe framerate dips. I’m not sure what sort of secret sauce Firaxis has conjured up, but XCOM 2 not only looks amazing: it runs flawlessly also. There is not a single offensive pixel, and the framerate dipped maybe 10 frames at the most. I am running a 390 in my system, but on every graphical setting, the game looked and ran amazing, so the graphical quality is surely a testament to Firaxis’ optimization and not my behemoth graphics card.
Firaxis has made it easier than ever to mod XCOM 2. Steam Workshop has been integrated within the game to allow you to share and download mods with ease. This opens up new weapon, armor, and character types and even full campaigns to download and play through. XCOM is already known for having incredibly high replayability and the addition of this mod system extends that replayability ceiling even further.
XCOM 2 completely blew me out of my seat (not literally because I was glued to the game, well placed in a chair) and improved in every area over Enemy Unknown. Each system has been tweaked to perfection and then built upon further. Thankfully, Firaxis delivered a title that doesn’t feel like XCOM 1.5, but feels like a overhauled, refined, and expansive title. It really appears that the four years between the two titles ensured that Firaxis left no stone unturned and we have an amazing game as a result.
While not too many issues were present on launch, the balancing definitely needs to be worked on. Hopefully Firaxis already has a patch in the works for these issues and they’ll be fixed shortly. Regardless, this issues is only a minor blemish on an otherwise flawless title.
THE BOTTOM LINE
All expectations for XCOM 2 were satisfied in every definition of the word. Every detail has been taken to a whole new level by Firaxis, and they have managed to make a sequel that improves on a title that required very little improvement in the first place. Once again, Firaxis surprises with XCOM 2 and for $59.99, it would be a shame if you didn’t pick it up, even at full price.